Come to My Town: There’s just so much going on in Clonakilty

In this weekly series, MARTINA O’DONOGHUE visits Cork towns and interviews key characters to learn about he gems of their much-loved home places. This week she visits Clonakilty and chats to Orla O’Donovan
Come to My Town: There’s just so much going on in Clonakilty

Orla O'Donovan, Chairperson Clonakilty Chamber of Commerce.

IT would be easier to list what one cannot see and do in Clonakilty, rather than what one can!

There is simply so much going on in a town that is a touch cosmopolitan, yet so very Irish too, with a rich history that is celebrated at every turn. A vibrant and colourful town, it has always had its finger on the pulse of progression, becoming the first in Ireland to be designated an autism-friendly town in 2018.

Still looking to the future, Orla O’Donovan, chairperson of Clonakilty Chamber of Commerce, tells me that the town is now working towards green tourism.

“A lot of the food businesses are working on food waste and we’re piloting a project with Eilish Munday from the Cork Education and Training Board.”

She describes what she has learned as ‘an eye opener’ and ‘a great learning experience’ and admits that the businesses involved, three hotels and four restaurants, wouldn’t have had the time to engage with it only for Level 5 restrictions.

The silver lining of lockdown...

For Orla, who has been running The Fig and Olive restaurant since 2010, the downtime of the past five months has also given her the opportunity to rethink her own business. Fortunately, she had the wisdom to develop a rear outside space three years ago — a patio area that is much needed in this pandemic era — and this year the restaurant has been completely renovated.

She also started a whole new enterprise with a food truck called Smash Burger.

“That was to keep staff together, but we also discovered a brand new business that we wouldn’t have only for lockdown. We were only using that truck as storage but now we have another layer to our business. We have to find the positives out of a nightmare year,” she says.

Smash Burger — selling American style burgers, skinny fries and milkshakes — is an evening business open from 4-8pm.

Hers isn’t the only business that has had to undergo transformation out of necessity.

“All the businesses have changed so much. Everyone has had to adapt to stay relevant and stay in people’s minds. The majority of shops have been extremely resilient and coped well,” says Orla.

Among those businesses are ones which never previously had an online presence. Examples are Sinead Hallihan, owner of the boutique Gooseberry on Ash Street, who built her own website during lockdown, as did Michelle Mitton’s Design Gallery on Pearse Street.

Clonakilty, West Cork. Picture: Andy Gibson
Clonakilty, West Cork. Picture: Andy Gibson

Despite online transactions being so faceless, Orla reckons the personality of Clonakilty is still the best thing about the town.

“Going for a walk recently, I noticed that 85% of shops had owners behind the counter. In this online era, these are the people who care so much about their business and value their customers so highly. It’s such a great experience shopping in Clonakilty.”

Orla loves the craft shops, including Wild Atlantic Designs on Pearse Street and Green Dot on Ashe Street, while she also advises that “you can get the whole family dressed” in the town’s large selection of clothes shops, including Options and CiCi boutiques on Pearse Street, SuSu boutique on Ashe Street and Grasshopper kidswear on Rossa Street.

Meanwhile, to support local art, a visit to Aidan O’Regan’s gallery shop on Ashe Street is a good idea.

It’s clear that Orla’s heart is in the town centre among the business community, which us not surprising as business is in her blood. Her mother ran Mary Rose’s restaurant in Bandon, as well as in the Queen’s Old Castle and The Savoy in Cork and at locations in Limerick and Dublin. And although a Bandon girl originally, Clonakilty has been Orla’s home for the past 18 years.

She is married to a Clon’ man, Conor Lowney, and is mum to two children, aged four and six. So whenever she can down tools, she knows all the spots to go on family outings.

“There’s the Joe Walsh Walkway, which is very flat and brings you all the way into town.

“Kids could cycle the whole way around. That’s out by the technology park. You could park in town or there’s limited parking out there”, she advises.

“We have a playground in Clonakilty across from the Park Hotel on the bypass. And Emmet Square is lovely if you want to have a little picnic. It’s the only Georgian square outside Dublin. Kennedy Gardens on the square has been done up. There’s a lovely market there on Fridays. All the planting and trees in Clonakilty are magnificent and all work on our streetscapes has been finished, so all our footpaths are much wider. It’s so conducive now to wheelchairs, buggys and double buggys.”

Of course, the seaside location is also something to boast about.

“Twelve beaches within twelves miles”, says Orla proudly.

Incydoney is probably the most famous of the beaches but Orla tends to favour the lesser known Duneen beach, past the Dunmore House Hotel on the left, which she calls, “a really safe swimming beach”.

To find Red Strand (with its coffee truck, Ocean Brew), head out west past Dunnes Stores, veering off half- way between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery, while Long Strand will reward you not only with the natural beauty of the ocean — looking out over Galley Head lighthouse — but also the chance for a bite to eat at The Fish Basket, the creation of Peter and Elaine Shanahan, and featured in January on RTÉ’s Neven’s Irish Seafood Trails.

Whether you are swimming or simply breathing in the sea air, you are likely to work up an appetite and another seaside food option is The Silver Surfer, a mobile unit outside The Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa. Of course, with hotels re-opening tomorrow and outdoor hospitality from June 7, you will have even more options in a town considered quite a mecca for foodies.

If it’s raining — or the great outdoors isn’t a priority — you can head indoors to Clonakilty’s many attractions, now thankfully re-opened after lockdown. There’s the Michael Collins House (pre-booking is necessary) and the Clonakilty Distillery, while The Clonakilty Black Pudding visitor centre is re-opening today.

The Clonakilty Park Hotel has an adventure centre and adventure golf on site, which is fully reopening tomorrow and the West Cork Model Railway Village is an enduring favourite, with online pre-booking now a necessity. After a difficult year for everyone, Clonakilty is ready to roll out the red carpet to visitors.

“The general sense here is that we all feel very blessed and grateful for where we live and we’d love to share it with other people,” says Orla.

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